Torrance at 100: the South Bay City's Origins as a Model Industrial Town

As this ca. 1920s postcard shows, oil derricks and houses co-existed in Torrance. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, Cal State Dominguez Hills Archives.

Later this month, the South Bay city of Torrance celebrates its centennial. Founded in 1912, Torrance followed in the footsteps of L.A. County's "phantom cities" and prefigured the master-planned communities that now sprawl over the region's coastal plain from Lakewood to Irvine.

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Pasadena businessman J. Sidney Torrance envisioned the settlement as a model industrial town. In an era when labor tensions gripped Los Angeles -- witness the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building -- Torrance was to be a haven for workers and capitalists alike from the hostilities of the time. It would also offer some a way out of the living conditions that prevailed in parts of unplanned Los Angeles.

"The time has come when we must go beyond this and see that the man at work, the man who really makes the factory possible, has ideal living conditions," J. Sidney Torrance declared when he announced plans for his new town, to be located halfway between Los Angeles and the San Pedro harbor. "It is not charity, but mighty good business. See how it works. The man who has clean air to breath, who has a good home and pleasant surroundings comes to work in the morning in better condition to do the labor required of him. It is mental as well as physical health that must be offered him."

With the backing of other members of the Los Angeles business elite, Torrance secured some of the finest planning and architectural talent of his time to develop his idea. Modernist Irving Gill would serve as the town's resident architect, and for the princely sum of $10,000 Torrance hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to develop the town plan. Olmsted -- the son of the famed Central Park designer and later the co-author of influential reports on Southern California's parks and roadways -- came to the project with a reputation for integrating natural elements into urban spaces.

The historic Old Torrance district still bears many of Olmsted's signature touches. Among the most evident is El Prado Avenue, a spacious parkway landscaped with trees and carefully aligned to afford views of Mount San Antonio (Baldy) on clear days. Olmsted's plan included paved streets, a a pre-built sewer system, and a civic center arranged around El Prado, complete with an administrative building, school, library, hospital, and auditorium.

Olmsted organized the initial townsite into distinct use zones. To ensure an easy commute for workers, Olmsted placed the residential and industrial districts within walking distance of each other, but specified that the factories should be built downwind of the houses.

A more sinister form of segregation was also a part of the city's early plans, as one area of the town was set aside to house "special quarters for non-Caucasians." Reflecting the widespread social injustice of the time, deed restrictions prohibited the sale of land and the renting of housing to nonwhites in all but this one corner of the town. As a result, the people of color who came to Torrance for work would be excluded from mainstream life for decades.

1912 view of an empty field in Torrance. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1919 postcard of the Hendrie Rubber Company and Glass Factory in Torrance. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, Cal State Dominguez Hills Archives.

1918 postcard of the Llewellyn Iron Works in Torrance. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, Cal State Dominguez Hills Archives.

Circa 1920s postcard of Sartori Street in Torrance. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, Cal State Dominguez Hills Archives.

Circa 1920s postcard of Torrance's downtown business district. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, Cal State Dominguez Hills Archives.

In December 1911, Torrance and his Dominguez Land Company -- named after the Dominguez family that had controlled the surrounding land since the late eighteenth century -- purchased two tracts east of Redondo Beach totaling nearly 2,800 acres for the planned settlement. Soon, the Pacific Electric Railway and Southern Pacific Railroad agreed to extend their lines to the new town, and a promise from the Union Tool Company to relocate there at a new, $500,000 plant guaranteed the town's conception. The company broke ground on the town on February 6, 1912.

Initially, the city was to be named Dominguez rather than Torrance. But the Dominguez name was already attached to a Pacific Electric station that served the Dominguez family's home. When the family learned that they would have to relinquish the name of their station to avoid confusion, they insisted instead on a different name for the town. In March 1912, the Dominguez Land Company agreed to change the name to Torrance in honor of the town's founder.

On October 28, 1912, the company declared Torrance officially open, selling more than a quarter million dollars' worth of land in its first day. A newspaper advertisement promised that "it will easily be a progessive city of probably 20,000 people IN NOT MORE THAN FIVE YEARS" [emphasis in original].

Despite the company's enthusiasm, the fledgling town took several years to realize even the basic elements of Olmsted's plan. Most streets remained imaginary except on maps, civic amenities like hospitals and libraries were missing, and a small cement building housed the town's only school. To combat the dust storms that plagued the nearly empty town, the Dominguez Land Company planted barley on its many vacant parcels.

A recession in 1913 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stymied the town's growth; while the Union Tool Company's new plant opened on schedule, other industrial concerns were slow to arrive.

So were residents. Three years after its founding, only 350 people called Torrance home.

But prosperity eventually came to Torrance. By the time it incorporated as a city on May 12, 1921, its population had increased to 1,800, and the discovery of a vast oil field underneath the city in late 1921 brought further prosperity -- as well as a veritable forest of oil derricks -- to Torrance.

1925 aerial view of Torrance. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Circa 1920s postcard of oil wells along Carson Street in Torrance. Courtesy of the South Bay History Collection, Cal State Dominguez Hills Archives.

The Pacific Electric Railway's decision to locate its shops in Torrance helped make possible the town's founding. Circa 1924 aerial photo courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

Read more L.A. as Subject posts here at KCET.org, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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